World's Leading Biological Physicists to Converge on Campus
Kim McDonald | June 13, 2011
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu will be on campus next week to participate in an international scientific conference. But Chu, a co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, won’t be here to talk about U.S. energy policy. He’s giving a scientific talk on biological physics.
Since the establishment at UC San Diego of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Theoretical Biological Physics in 2002, scientists around the world have begun to recognize the value of applying the theoretical tools of physics and mathematics to better understand the fundamental principles governing complex biological systems.
The most visible manifestation of that recognition will be on display next week at the Price Center, where three Nobel Prize-winning scientists will gather with 400 other physicists, chemists, mathematicians and biologists from around the world for the International Conference on Biological Physics. Among them will be some of the more than 50 former postdoctoral fellows who over the past decade received their initial training in this emerging field at the UCSD center, now considered the world’s leading think tank for research and education in theoretical biological physics.
“This field has grown by more than a factor of 10 over the last 20 years,” said José N. Onuchic, a professor of physics at UCSD and co-director of the center known as CTBP. “All of these former postdocs now have faculty positions at major research institutions. Nearly every physics department in the country is creating positions that apply physics theory to biology.”
“What we do in biological physics is to try to understand the fundamental, underlying laws governing biological systems, just as physicists have gained an understanding of the fundamental laws of non-living matter,” he added. “If you understand these underlying principles, you can make predictions. And if you can make predictions and verify them, you gain insight into complex biological processes that now appear unpredictable.”
In addition to Chu, other keynote speakers at next week's conference, which runs from June 22 to 24, will be 2009 Chemistry Nobel Prize-winner Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute in Israel; 2008 Chemistry Nobel Prize-winner Roger Tsien, a professor of chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacology at UCSD; John Hopfield of Princeton University, one of the pioneers of neural networks; and Carlos Bustamante of UC Berkeley, one of the pioneers in the application of single molecule technology to biology.
The National Science Foundation started the UCSD center with a $10.5 million grant over five years, and then renewed the center’s grant in 2008 with an additional $11 million for five more years. Rice University announced two weeks ago that it had hired Onuchic and two other senior investigators from UCSD—Herbert Levine, a professor of physics and the other co-director of CTBP, and Peter Wolynes, a professor of physics and chemistry—which created the erroneous impression that the center would be moving to Rice. Instead, CTBP will be a joint center that will include both UCSD and Rice.
José N. Onuchic
But Onuchic said the center’s NSF grant would continue to be managed by UCSD for the remaining two years and that the majority of the funding would go to support work in La Jolla. Equally important, the researchers who are moving to Rice and the rest of the center’s visiting and permanent researchers, who will remain in La Jolla, would continue to collaborate as they had before.
“The main research efforts for the center will be a synergy for both institutions,” said Onuchic, who hopes to reinforce that with two retreats a year, one at Rice and one at UCSD.
Much of the focus will remain at UCSD since the computer infrastructure for the center is at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the remainder of the center’s senior faculty, which includes ten professors from UCSD and the Salk Institute, will not be going to Rice, but will stay in La Jolla to continue their research.
One of those senior faculty members, Terence Hwa, a professor of physics and biology who is one of the center’s co-principal investigators, was offered a faculty position at Rice, but turned it down because he felt UCSD offered a better environment to continue his research.
“They made me a very attractive offer, but there are some things money cannot buy,” he said. “I live and die by the excellent group of postdocs I can recruit, and I felt there were only four or five institutions in the nation I could attract postdocs of that quality, and UCSD is one of them.”